Last week I was sitting at a restaurant with a friend when we noticed three bright young mothers, all shiny blonde hair, at the table next to us. They dug into large plates of delicious food.
I leaned forward and interrupted them with what I thought was charm and humor. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, ‘but we have terrible food envy. May I ask what you eat?’
They looked at me like I was something unappetizing they had found on the soles of their shoes.
“Mezze,” said one coldly as she quickly returned to her conversation.
I had been dismissed. My friend and I looked at each other in shock before rolling our eyes and getting down to the serious business of catching up.
One of the beauties of aging is that you don’t feel the need to react when people misbehave; you are able to move on.
Except I found I couldn’t completely let go of this. It was a real shock. A ‘line in the sand’ moment. The younger women had ignored me at first sight. I wasn’t worth consideration or courtesy. In short, I was old. Irrelevant.
And I was convinced it was because I had stopped coloring my hair. My once brunette, then blonde, then (slightly disastrous) pink hair is now its natural salt-and-pepper. Had I still had blonde highlights, our other diners wouldn’t have made me feel like the crazy old lady who was making their lives difficult.
Honestly, at 54, I expect men to ignore me. But I never thought I would become invisible to women too
While I love my new silver color – especially the hours saved and the condition it’s in (it’s never looked healthier) – I’m amazed at how dramatically it’s aged me in the eyes of the world. And how differently women in particular treat me.
Honestly, at 54, I expect men to ignore me. But I never thought I would become invisible to women too. No one ever warns you about it. Nor do they tell you that it is far more devastating.
I’m not sure I ever realized how much women enjoy attracting admiring glances from our peers. I’m not sure I ever realized how much I personally appreciate attention from well-dressed women – especially those several years younger.
To be rejected like that was a slap in the face. So much for the sisterhood; it turns out that when you ditch the color, solidarity is limited to other silver-haired women.
Like many women, I found the pandemic to be disastrous for my hair. When the hairdressers closed, I tried to bleach it myself, ignoring its increasingly straw-like texture.
Then one day I woke up to find that half of my hair had been ripped off. On the one hand, my hair was long; on the other hand, it was down to half an inch. I had half a mullet.
There was no choice – I had it all cut off. I was left feeling like a boy. It was awful. Not that short hair on women is inherently bad, but it was horrible to me. I felt like Samson: all my confidence was in my hair and I hated to lose it.
Like many women, I found the pandemic to be disastrous for my hair. When the hairdressers closed, I tried to bleach it myself, ignoring its increasingly straw-like texture (pictured 50 years)
All my life I had been known for my lovely thick hair. Naturally curly (although regularly straight these days), strangers have often stopped to compliment me on it. So it was a big loss.
It took almost two years to grow out – without a drop of bleach, dye or anything else on it. I decided to finally embrace my natural color and see how it felt.
It helped that, amid the pandemic, women around the world seemed to be doing the same. There were movements online, with thousands of social media accounts of beautiful women proudly letting their hair go gray. They called themselves ‘silver sisters’. I decided it was time to join their ranks.
I loved the camaraderie I felt when I walked into a store to find another woman growing out her hair, and we immediately struck up a conversation about how liberating it was.
My husband hates artwork of any kind, so he loved this more natural look. My kids were suspicious at first, but as it grew they all admitted it suited me.
My friends loved it too – and while I would have preferred it to be white like my mom’s, I was happy with how healthy it looked.
But as the months went by, I noticed that not everyone was so in love.
The first time I realized I was invisible was at a trendy restaurant full of glamorous thirty-somethings. No one was exactly rude to me, it was just that they didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at me.
Before I still wanted to get. . . good, checked out. Younger women looked at me approvingly, judging what I was wearing, as women so often do. Now, no matter what make-up or outfit I choose, I might as well wear Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
Maybe I noticed it more because my formerly sleepy town has had a huge influx of bright young things moving in recently.
So many young families fled the city during the pandemic. Babies needed gardens and their parents, now working from home, needed more space.
Our high street, once half-dead with empty shops, is now teeming with groups of luscious mummies pushing babies in buggies.
I didn’t feel old until these women came to town. I never thought much about my age, and whenever I had a conversation with a young mother, I didn’t feel a gap between us.
Losing the male gaze isn’t what really hurts about aging. Yes, I admit when I was younger I dressed to impress men. But at this stage of life we dress according to the appreciation of other women
Granted, my kids are all in college while these moms are still having kids, but I assumed we were on the same page; we understood each other. Once I had the necessary blonde highlights, they played along.
Not so now I’m gray. As much as I love it, I can’t deny how tempted I am to dye my hair again every time I’m rejected or ignored by younger women.
But then I remember the straw-like texture and the huge amounts of money wasted…
Other silver sisters have had much the same experience. I’ve also discussed it with friends who still pay fortunes for highlights. “You think you’re invisible now?” they’re laughing. ‘Wait until you turn 60!’
They also agree that losing the male gaze isn’t what really hurts about aging. Yes, I admit when I was younger I dressed to impress men. But at this stage of life we dress according to the appreciation of other women.
Nothing pleases my group of female friends more than getting dolled up for a girls’ night out. We make an effort for each other.
Who better to appreciate that nice pair of earrings you just bought or that vintage coat you unexpectedly got on a trip?
As a novelist, I am fascinated by women in particular; according to how they think, what their emotional life is, what they wear. I could sit in a corner of a restaurant by myself and amuse myself for hours watching people. I used to like that I was also a subject of other people watching.
My snakeskin boots often got compliments when I went out. The amazing poncho that makes me feel like a rodeo queen was commented on everywhere I went. The Moroccan kaftan that swept me to more exotic places was praised every time I wore it.
These days the whole lot might as well be shrouded in black bins for the lack of impact they make.
I will say that my clothes are not for everyone. A few years ago, when my hair was pink, I went to a concert (British new wave) in my usual animal print outfit, furry clogs and a checkered jacket. A group of women my age swarmed drunkenly around me. ‘We love your costume!’ they wept for joy. I didn’t have the heart to tell them it wasn’t a costume. But I was glad that they at least saw me as worth noting.
It had taken me a long time to establish my sense of style. I had spent most of my life trying to fit in
It had taken me a long time to establish my sense of style. I had spent most of my life trying to fit in. If floral maxi dresses were all the rage, this is what you’d find me in. I once went to a party where all the women—including me—were wearing floral maxi dresses and denim jackets. It was like a school uniform.
It wasn’t until I turned 50 that I decided to experiment. I found myself drawn to my more art school, bohemian roots. I fell head over heels in love with Morocco and its kaftans and abayas, and developed a deep passion for the look in the late 1960s and 1970s.
I no longer wanted to look like everyone else. I embraced my uniqueness instead of trying to fit this square peg into a round hole. I finally found my own style, instead of trying to follow the crowd, or fashion. Growing pink hair for a few years was great – a true rebellion against the norm – but the truth is, I’m too low maintenance to keep it up.
I hadn’t realized that leaving it gray would turn out to be even more radical.
As much as I love it, as much as it suits me, there’s no doubting how old it is.
And this despite my cool outfits, my, ahh, fashion-forward sense of style. Younger women don’t notice the clothes, they notice the hair – and when they see the grey, everything about me fades into the background.
Although I like to think that I no longer care what people think of me, I’ve discovered that I don’t care when people don’t think about me at all. When I feel irrelevant, invisible and, unfortunately, old.
I don’t know what the answer is. I know that there is clearly still work to be done on my journey towards self-acceptance.
I also know that I don’t want to dye my hair even though it would shave years off me.
Instead, I am working on embracing myself as a silver sister. I want to feel confident enough in my skin that I no longer need the admiration of the female gaze.
I want to believe that I’m perfectly fine, just the way I am, silver linings and all. Regardless of who does – or doesn’t – notice me.